NAFO fiddles while Rome burns

Date: September 27, 2005

Fisheries managers gathered in Estonia for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation annual meeting last week, once again failed to take the ‘urgent action’ against destructive fishing practices called for by the United Nations, apparently deciding instead to develop guidelines on gathering data and review existing research. ‘NAFO “fiddling while Rome burns” with their reform agenda’ was the headline of the Greenpeace press release lamenting the outcome of last week’s meeting (1). In spite of three reports highly critical of the performance of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) released this year (2), including that of an advisory body appointed by the Canadian government which called for NAFO to be scrapped entirely to make way for a more modern organisation, NAFO has decided to reform itself with the launch of a review of its convention and a series of “first steps towards an ecosystem approach” (3).

These “first steps” include tasking NAFO scientists to “look into areas of marine biological and ecological significance for NAFO”, and NAFO fishing vessels to collect data on seamounts in the NAFO area on a voluntary basis, undersea mountains being viewed as “potentially vulnerable ecosystems that might warrant special protection.” But in 2004, more than 1,100 scientists from 69 countries called for a UN moratorium on high seas bottom trawling because of the irreversible and destructive impact it has on deep-sea ecosystems and more scientists are signing on every day. (4) Also in 2004, RFMOs were given two years by the United Nations General Assembly to take urgent measures to address the impact of destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, on vulnerable marine ecosystems in international waters. “If NAFO members were really serious about the state of NAFO’s deep-sea fisheries and protecting deep-sea ecosystems, they would have agreed to an immediate ban on high seas bottom trawling”, said Matthew Gianni, political advisor to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “Waiting for RFMOs to take action to protect seamounts will guarantee that the deep water devastation continues unabated for the foreseeable future”, Gianni concluded. Sixty percent of the world’s high seas bottom trawl catch comes from the Northwest Atlantic, the area that NAFO is supposed to manage. As a result of overfishing and NAFO mismanagement, however, four of the six straddling deep-sea fish stocks under NAFO’s care are currently under moratoria. During a three-week expedition to the NAFO area in August, Greenpeace documented mismanagement of shrimp fisheries and warned that the Greenland halibut fishery is in imminent danger of collapse (5). The Greenpeace expedition also witnessed intensive bottom trawling for shrimp and redfish along the western edge of the Flemish Cap, an area identified by Canadian scientists as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ because of the presence of soft corals and seapens in the area. “The NAFO AGM’s response is pathetically inadequate to the urgent action that scientists and the UN have called for to protect deep-sea biodiversity. By the time they have finished developing guidelines and reviewing information there may not be anything left to protect,” said Bunny McDiairmid, Greenpeace International oceans campaigner.

Notes: (1) NAFO ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ with their reform agenda, Greenpeace press release, 26 September 2005 (pdf). (2) Report of the Advisory Panel on the Sustainable Management of Straddling Fish Stocks in the Northwest Atlantic, Sept. 2005
Bycatch on the High Seas: A Review of the Effectiveness of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, WWF report Sept. 2005 Executive summary (pdf) / Full report (pdf)
Greenpeace NAFO Case Study, July 2005 (pdf). (3) “NAFO scientists were tasked to look into areas of marine biological and ecological significance for NAFO. In addition, NAFO fishing vessels will collect, on a voluntary basis, data on seamounts in the NAFO area. These undersea mountains are viewed as potentially vulnerable ecosystems that might warrant special protection. Ecosystem studies have long been a part of the work of the Scientific Council. In 2006, NAFO will hold a symposium to advance knowledge of the Northwest Atlantic ecosystems. During the past year NAFO began discussions of applying the ecosystem approach to fisheries management. An important milestone was made in 2004 when NAFO adopted and began to implement a framework for the Precautionary Approach. Progress continues to be made in the application of the Precautionary Approach to stock assessments.” NAFO 2005 AGM press release and backgrounder, 23 September 2005. (4) Scientists’ statement, MCBI’s website. (5) The expedition findings are summarised in a letter from Greenpeace to NAFO’s Executive Secretary and members, (pdf).